Why did they torture?

Torture is barbaric and immoral and goes against all civilized norms of behavior. Those considerations alone should be sufficient to not do it and prosecute those who do. But there are those who argue that that is trumped by the fact that it generates information that can prevent even worse outcomes. But there are some things that we have known for a long time about the efficacy of torture that the US senate report has made even more clear and that is that it is not useful for getting information since tortured people will tell you what you want to hear or whatever they think will stop the torture.

But what is even more damning is that the very people who did the torturing knew all these things long ago. Tim Weiner says the CIA had tortured people many times in the past , during the Korean war, with Russians during the Cold War, and during the contra-backed proxy war with Nicaragua, and they had concluded that torture doesn’t work.

What is striking about this week’s Senate report on the Bush administration’s torture program—what is new—is not the fact that CIA officers may have violated the laws of God or the Geneva Convention setting up torturing prisons in the black sites of Afghanistan and Thailand and Poland. We knew that.

What is shocking is the continuing claim of the CIA’s leaders that torture worked. And that is a damnable lie, a devastating deceit and a self-deception that poses a danger to the agency and the American people.

Yet the CIA had concluded before Sept. 11 that torture does not work. Richard Stolz, chief of the CIA’s clandestine service under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, testified to Congress: “Physical abuse or other degrading treatment was rejected not only because it is wrong, but because it has historically proven to be ineffective.” To quote from the agency’s own manuals, reproduced in the Senate report: “Inhumane physical or psychological techniques are counterproductive because they do not produce intelligence and will probably result in false answers.”

So why did they do something that was unquestionably evil even when they knew it would not serve any purpose?

The justification that is brought out is that torture was a response to the events of 9/11. Those events undoubtedly played a major role in this reaction but not in the way that torture apologists claim. In terms of the numbers of people killed, it pales in comparisons to the tens and hundreds of thousands of people killed in other countries that have seen insurrections, civil wars, and wars. But what distinguished 9/11 was two things: it was a spectacular attack of a kind that had never been seen before and the target was a country that perceived itself as such a dominant power that it felt that nobody would be able to inflict any harm on it even if they dared to try.

I think that it was this sense of its own invincibility being shattered and being humiliated that angered those arrogant with their sense of being the rulers of the world. The attacks of 9/11 were seen as an outrageous act of lèse-majesté that enraged these people beyond all reason. So they lashed out in blind rage, in revenge, and they did not care who was the victim. They are like the people who suffer some humiliation at work and then come home and beat their spouses and children and kick the dog because they feel they need an outlet to vent their anger and so they choose whatever target is at hand that cannot fight back. In such cases there is undoubtedly a sense of sadistic pleasure and release that is derived from inflicting pain on others.

And there is undoubtedly an element of sadistic pleasure that Bush, Cheney, Hayden, Tenet, Yoo, and Addington, Bybee, Gonzalez and all these other ”tough'” guys got from knowing that they were enabling people to be brutalized. One suspects that they experienced vicarious pleasure from having surrogates do what they themselves were not in a position to do.

When all the torture enablers and apologists say that they did it because they were concerned about future attacks and needed to do these things to get information in order to protect America from further attacks, they may actually believe what they say. All of us need to preserve our self-image as good people and we construct reasons to justify even our worst actions, and the ‘we are protecting America’ trope was the best one at hand, just as people who beat their children and kick their dogs usually have some proximate cause that they can point to in justification and say that the children and dogs did something that justified their actions.

The evidence that sadistic revenge was behind the way that the US brutalized people can be seen from the comments of some people who were indiscreet enough to let their true feelings show during those times. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman expressed it in his now-infamous ‘suck on this’ interview with Charlie Rose, saying:

“I think it [the invasion of Iraq] was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie.

We needed to go over there, basically, um, and um, uh, take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble, and there was only one way to do it.

What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?”

You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow?

Well, Suck. On. This.


That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could’ve hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. We coulda hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.”

“We hit Iraq because we could” and it made us feel better. And we tortured people because we could and it made us feel better.

Or take Jonah Goldberg’s statement:

“In the weeks prior to the war to liberate Afghanistan, a good friend of mine would ask me almost every day, “Why aren’t we killing people yet?” And I never had a good answer for him. Because one of the most important and vital things the United States could do after 9/11 was to kill people. Call it a “forceful response,” “decisive action” — whatever. Those are all nice euphemisms for killing people. And the world is a better place because America saw the necessity of putting steel beneath the velvet of those euphemisms.”

Or when he was quoting neoconservative Michael Ledeen who reportedly said in a speech:

“Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business”

There is a deep and wide streak of sadism that is revealed by statements such as these and one heard it constantly in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The US is like the bully in the playground who, when his back is turned, is struck by a stone thrown at him and in a blind rage lashes out at whoever is at hand in order to show that he still is the boss.

This is why as their justifications for torture are exposed as hollow, we see ever-more bizarre justifications for their actions. Dick Cheney now says that what the US did was not torture and that the US prosecuted the Japanese not for doing the same things that he ordered but for different things, flatly contradicting the facts. Both he and Michael Hayden say that the forced rectal feeding is a medical procedure though the medical profession says it is nothing of the kind and that it is indeed torture and that no member of the medical profession should be a party to it. [Update: Conor Fridersdorf has an exceptionally good dissection of Cheney’s disgusting assertions.]

What we saw was torture that was prompted by a desire to inflict pain, and is nothing short of sadism. What we are now seeing are grotesque justifications for it. It is not a pretty sight.


  1. smrnda says

    If someone is genuinely bothered by lives lost from a terrorist attack, and if this response actually comes from a real distaste for senseless violence and concern for human welfare, the response is not to engage in further senseless violence.

    However, authoritarian thugs aren’t so much concerned with loss of life as the idea of being ‘disrespected’ in some way and have to act out for the sake of their egos. It’s why they can go on and on about the horrible things done to Americans/America but can celebrate those exact same things done to someone else. It’s because the violence and brutality itself doesn’t bother them.

  2. Sunday Afternoon says

    As I think I saw someone comment somewhere else on FTB, the terrorists won given that the US response to the attacks, including resorting to these tactics.

    Cheney’s interview over the weekend is all that any international court would need to use as evidence that Cheney was knowingly violating the applicable Geneva Convention.

    That Bush, Cheney and others are still not indicted and facing trial is disgusting, and the current administration’s tacit approval is equally so.

  3. Crimson Clupeidae says

    There was a line in a movie, but my brain is not cooperating this morning, about the reaction of a whole country or people, to an attack, and the results when they collectively wake up were going to be tragic…..

    I’m pretty sure most of what was done was done mostly out of revenge. There was no justice, there was no justifying…pure, simple, reactionary revenge.

  4. kraut says

    Not so much revenge -- simply the exhilaration to be able to exert absolute power over someone by inflicting pain in the knowledge that you are protected from the consequences.

  5. says

    Torture has long been standard practice in the US military for over a century, mostly in Asia and Latin America. The only difference now is that the US no longer pretends to have unbloodied hands. Now it revels in it.

    So why did they do something that was unquestionably evil even when they knew it would not serve any purpose?

    Oh, but it does serve a purpose: The exertion of unchecked power is done to intimidate and terrorize the local population. It scares potential dissenters into silence and capitulation. Demonstrations of power now prevent demonstrations seeking democracy later.

    “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.”
    -- rightwing scumbag Michael Ledeen

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